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Hackie: The Pipes Are Calling

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"So, are you a born-and-bred Vermonter?" I asked James MacNeil, the burly man with a formidable white beard sitting in the back of my taxi. He had come up to Burlington for some medical tests, and I was driving him back to his home, located in a small town south of Rutland.

"I am not," he replied. "For the first three years of my life, I lived in Barra, a Scottish town in the Hebrides Islands and the ancestral home of the MacNeil clan. Someone did some extensive research on the clan, and I found out that if the precise 256 people die in a plane crash, I am next in line to become chieftain."

"Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that, though I'm sure you'd make an able chieftain," I said, chuckling. "Where did your family move to when you were 3?"

"My father got a job offer in the Bronx, and we moved to America."

"I see. And, just to complete the progression, how'd you end up in Vermont?"

"I did two tours in Vietnam as a squad leader and became good friends with one of my men. When we were both back stateside, he invited me up to his family's home in South Royalton. From the moment I arrived, I felt comfortable in Vermont and knew it would be a good place to call home.

"During that same visit, on a hunting trip, I met a man in a bar who I hit it off with. A short time later, he called me with a job offer. And that man was Wayne LaPierre. Heard of him?"

"I sure have. He's the NRA guy."

"Well, I began working for the NRA in a number of capacities, eventually as a legislative liaison."

I cut to the chase. "Does this make you a Trump guy, James?"

"Not entirely. Put it this way: He's got a pair of balls on him, but he clearly needs to grow a mind."

I might have taken issue with James' take on our president's testicles, but I could wholeheartedly second the assessment of his mind. (To nitpick, on my wish list, I would prioritize his growing a heart.) In any event, that short exchange exhausted my daily limit on political talk. I did have a gun question, however.

"In Vietnam, did the troops use the AK-15, the gun that's been in the news so much lately?"

"No, the army issued M-16s, another automatic rifle. Unfortunately, this gun had a fatal flaw, we quickly discovered — it jammed constantly in the jungle heat. So, we ditched them and used shotguns on patrol."

"Really? The army supplied you with shotguns?"

"Not exactly. We had a guy in our unit who was like Radar on 'M*A*S*H' — he could get his hands on just about anything. In fact, he was so valuable, we never let him leave camp."

We made our way — frustratingly slowly — down Route 7. I've heard that Interstate 89 south of Route 2 was originally slated for the western side of the state and only late in the planning process was switched to the east. It's hard to even imagine what the long corridor from Burlington to Bennington would now look like if the interstate had tracked Route 7. The cabbie in me would have appreciated the highway speeds; the Vermonter in me says, good riddance.

Thinking of my customer's Scottish roots and military service, I asked, "Didn't Scottish soldiers used to go into battle with bagpipers among them? Or is that just apocryphal?"

"No, that is historically accurate, though the pipes were banned by English law for nearly 150 years. The Scots supported the Stewart kings in their losing fight with the House of Hanover, which ultimately claimed the crown. After the Great Uprising, the Parliament outlawed bagpipes in 1745, classifying them as weapons of war."

That was a lot of compressed history to absorb, but I think I got the gist. "I'd call that a tribute to a mighty instrument," I observed. "Do you yourself play?"

"I do some, but my father was a master piper, a designation achieved after winning a series of competitions over many years. It's a huge achievement, a great honor, like being a chess grandmaster.

"Once, when the world-renowned Black Watch Pipes & Drums band was on tour in America, they had a layover at JFK airport. They rented a bus and drove out to my father's home on Long Island and saluted him with a short concert on the front lawn. Years later, on his deathbed, he told me that that day was the pinnacle of his life."

Pulling into James' town, we turned up a hill and soon approached his house. "I'm the town lister," he volunteered with a sigh as we pulled into his driveway. "Just one of many positions I've held. Just last month, they twisted my arm until I agreed to be moderator for this year's Town Meeting. Apparently — so they explained to me — I was the only one who knew the rules."

"You know what I think?" I said. "You should enter the meeting hall playing your bagpipes. I think that will set just the right tone and would also be good practice in case you become chieftain in the future."

"I like that," James said with a smile. "It could be an homage to my dad."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

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